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If "it" is a noun, what is it? If instead, "it is" is the 3rd person present verb to-be, what is the subject of the sentence? (How is it grammatical to have a sentence consisting only of two verbs in that case?)

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You have asked exactly the right question.

What is the subject of the sentence?

You know that an English sentence has to have at least a Subject and a Verb.

In the sentence It is raining, the Verb is easy to pick out: is raining, the verb RAIN in the present progressive construction.

But what is raining? Does the sky rain? Do the clouds rain? Does some Raingod rain? Is there anything or anybody which actually does something when rain falls? Not really.

But an English sentence has to have a Subject. So we cheat. We use it. We call this kind of it a dummy, something which we use instead of something real, like a tailor's dummy, or a ventriloquist's dummy, or a crash dummy.

It in it is raining isn't something which actually exists: it's a dummy which only there because we have to have a Subject.

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  • Reminds me of the TV commercial which had the sentence, "You could learn a lot from a dummy." But why do we have to have a subject? Couldn't meaningful things be said without a subject?
    – user20483
    Jan 17 '16 at 2:24
  • @nocomprende Oh, sure. <<< That's not a sentence: it doesn't have either a subject or a verb. But that's permitted because it is understood to modify the topic of your question. You could say simply "Rain!" ... or "Cold!" or "Cloudy!" But those don't assert a current fact; if we want to bring a new assertion into a discourse, we ordinarily use the sentence form to make it an assertion. Jan 17 '16 at 2:31
  • Wow! The explanation is very impressive!
    – Khan
    Jan 17 '16 at 3:50
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Because of the context of your sentence, it refers to the weather, since only the weather can rain.

It is raining
It is snowing
It is windy
It's howling out there
It's bucketing (means raining extremely hard)

can all be understood to refer to the weather which is usually considered genderless

The phrase

It is hot

might elicit a response of What is hot? if the subject is not immediately apparent since many different things can have a high temperature.

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  • So, really, the verb To Be hides the actual intent of the sentence. In the sidebar, a featured question says "Is it effective to review code in a language I don't know?" Is what effective? The whole construction seems very convoluted. isn't there a more direct way to say it?
    – user20483
    Jan 17 '16 at 2:28
  • The sentence refers to the weather, but weather isn't the antecedent of it, which is just a dummy subject.
    – deadrat
    Jan 17 '16 at 4:49
  • @nocomprende The dummy subject allows you to place words close together that need to be close together, e.g., "effective" and "to review." Without a dummy subject, we can ask "Is reviewing code in a language I don't know effective?" This makes our reader wait until the end of the sentence to find out what kind of reviewing we're talking about.
    – deadrat
    Jan 17 '16 at 4:52
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It (pronoun)

  1. used in the normal subject position in statements about time, distance, or weather.
    "It's half past five"

It is a utility word. It has many uses.

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  • Sounds recursive. I wonder how these things are said in languages that do not have the verb To Be?
    – user20483
    Jan 17 '16 at 2:25
  • The Spanish equivalent is the noun hacer: "Hace lloviendo."
    – lurker
    Jan 17 '16 at 2:50